Monday, May 19, 2008

On Being Intellectual

The whole concept of intellectual has been a mainstay of my life since at least my sophomore year in college. Before that, I didn't really think about it much, caught as I was in the tug-of-war between being popular and being smart. In high school, I abandoned my studies to drink and date, but while I was drinking, I engaged in the kinds of conversations one could only characterize as intellectual. The meaning of life and the existence of God were common topics. It wasn't until college, however, that the concept began to take on real meaning for me. I began to believe that I didn't measure up to true intellectuals. I wasn't smart enough, serious enough or deeply thoughtful enough to really be intellectual. Sadly, there were people in my life who told me these things. I have no idea which came first.

In the last couples of weeks, the concept of "public intellectual" has been raised a number of times. First, Anne Dalke brought this up in her discussion about why she uses public blogs in her courses. At Faculty Academy this past week, the concept became something of a theme, weaving its way through many panels and discussions. Finally, in catching up on blogs over the weekend, I ran into this article, mentioned by Tim Burke, where the author entreats academics to get involved with the "real world." For me, the quote that really hit home was this:
To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.
There are two issues that this raises for me, one is that it implies (perhaps correctly) that the only space for an intellectual to truly work is in a university as a faculty member. There's no space outside of that realm. The second is the whole tenure process. Why, oh why does this process essentially keep people from doing important work until they're through the process. It's what has always scared me away from pursuing this career track.

Wikipedia actually has a decent article on the intellectual. It provides this initial definition: "An intellectual is one who tries to use his or her intellect to work, study, reflect, speculate, or ask and answer questions about a wide variety of different ideas." According to this definition, there's certainly room for someone outside of academe to be intellectual. The problem is that outside of academe, intellectualism isn't much valued. (I'm sure there are exceptions to this, by the way.)

So, here's the thing. Anne and other faculty who are using blogs and other social tools to teach are trying to create the next generation of intellectuals within or without academe. And those of us out here blogging, I think, are trying to be public intellectuals of a sort. The problem is, we need to work to change the institutions that we work in and we need to work to create a more intellectual environment for everyone. I think people really are tired of the media glossing over everything or turning everything into a shouting match. But they don't know how to work their way out of it. People assume that the other path is dense, jargon-filled prose, but it doesn't have to be. It could be a rich conversation that allows everyone a way in. Increasingly, I feel that this is my role, to bridge the gap between the public and academe. And I guess that makes me an intellectual after all.